Designed for Summer Reading

For 20 of 21 days in June it rained on an island off the coast of Maine. Those days coincided with my vacation on that island—with a 4-year-old. On day one, we stared out the window. On day two, we played Twister, Go Fish and Hide and Seek. Repeatedly. On day three, the endless storm fried the router and we lost internet access. A new router would arrive “quickly,” which in Maine means one week; so, we painted the bathroom. On day four, we bought waders and went outside, determined to “vacation.” On day five, we all moaned in unison, “why? Why? WHY??” And on day six, anger turned to acceptance, and I settled down in the dreary light and began reading from the stack of books that had been designated for the beach. And things got better.

Cover of the book Design Your Life, by Ellen and Julia Lupton

Cover of the book Design Your Life, by Ellen and Julia Lupton.

I'd chosen several design books featuring short essays (which remain central to contemporary design writing, with pithy and insightful missives seemingly outnumbering lengthy commentaries and analyses). Up first, Ellen and Julia Lupton's Design Your Life: The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things (St. Martin's Griffin), a compendium of quick ruminations that ponder the design of the objects around us by two key figures—Ellen Lupton is the curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and director of the graphic design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art; while Julia Lupton teaches English at the University of California, Irvine, and directs the university's humanities core course.

The book includes many surprising pleasures: I didn't know who was responsible for 20th-century curtain design, and was pleased to read, albeit briefly, of Lilly Reich's role in crafting luminous room dividers in the 1920s. A survey of toasters includes a question that has irked me for years: “Why is it so hard to make toast?” Ellen Lupton ultimately relinquished a sleek Rowenta TL90 because it couldn't meet the toasting needs of a family of four, and while she doesn't answer her own query, just posing the question, with its hint of incredulity, offers a pleasant sense of connection and validation. If Ellen Lupton hasn't figured out toast yet, how can I expect to have resolved this vexing issue?


Sample spreads from Design Your Life, by Ellen and Julia Lupton

Sample spreads from Design Your Life, by Ellen and Julia Lupton.

Design Your Lifeemerged from a blog that the authors launched in 2005. Perhaps as a result, the voice of the book is cheerfully quirky, opinionated, personal and light. What's great about the voice, though, points to the book's only weakness: the presumption that readers will share in its particular outlook in terms of class or economic status.

That said, however, the authors insist from the start that design is a form of critical thinking. “It is a way of looking at the world and wondering why things work, and why they don't,” they write in the book's opening. They add a few pages later, “Design is thinking, materialized in objects and environments, inscribed in patterns of use, and addressed by analysis and planning.” The ensuing essays, then, similarly embody a process of thinking and attentiveness to the ways in which design becomes an often invisible infrastructure.

Cover of There’s Nothing Funny About Design, by David Barringer

Cover of There's Nothing Funny About Design, by David Barringer.

David Barringer is also interested in design understood as a pervasive presence in his book There's Nothing Funny About Design (Princeton Architectural Press), which collects a series of short, offbeat essays marked by a distinctly personal voice. Barringer's book, with four increasingly unusual sections, is decidedly more eccentric than Design Your Life, with commentary on everything from designer snakes and the names of drugs to passionate assessments of other designers, including Kenya Hara and Chip Kidd.

Barringer, who is a stay-at-home-dad, graphic designer and freelance writer, among other things, unites vivid metaphors and exhaustive research, as well as a good dose of humor, to impart unusual facts. In “Here Comes the Rooster,” for example, readers learn that cocks do not, in fact, have penises, and they swallow stones to help digest their meals. They have also served dozens of needs for dozens of cultures for hundreds of years. And they're frequently deployed by graphic designers. “If you consider incorporating a rooster into a design,” warns Barringer (in all caps!), “you might want to dig into the facts, history and legends of the rooster.” Well, there's no need to look further than this essay. More than gleaning factual histories, however, readers learn from Barringer a particular stance, one that acknowledges the flux of cultural context, and that design invariably entails the often neglected or acknowledged practice of ideological and cultural Frisbee, grabbing an icon and flipping it back, with a good twist. Barringer's real achievement, then, is laying bare some of the rules of this game in essays that never, ever use words like “ideological.”

Barringer devotes Part I to these often-quirky essays and articles, while Part II offers a wry self-help guide, namely the Live Well Now! Brainbook, designed to enhance “identity science,” which Barringer notes is at once “grammatically awkward but scary effective.” The spoof includes charts, graphics and a self-acceptance certificate, as well as a section on design of the self, all of it pointing to Barringer's rich imagination. The third section is yet another spoof, sort of, in this case rekindling the form of the rulebooks from the past, including Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac; the guide ostensibly directs young designers through sections on temperament, penmanship, collaboration, clients and so on, but again achieves something else indirectly, in this case performing a curious form of commentary through humor.


Sample spreads from Mike Mills: Graphics, Films

Two spreads from Mike Mills: Graphics Films.

Cover of Mike Mills: Graphics Films

Cover of Mike Mills: Graphics Films.

My third treat was Mike Mills: Graphics Films (Damiani), edited by Aaron Rose. Given its weight and size, the book should not have been carted across the country in a suitcase, but it was, and I was delighted to have it. The handsome tome surveys Mills' work over the last 15 years, with short comments by Mills throughout regarding various projects and how they came about. Like many designer overviews, this is a picture book, not a critical biography, and readers glean a sense of history, cultural context, personality and trends by absorbing the images, which are arranged more thematically than chronologically. Two essays at the end of the book by Stéphanie Moisdon highlight Mills' role within a group of like-minded artists and designers who share a historical moment and a disregard for the boundary between art and commerce. Mills is often considered within this loose category, but what actually emerges by the end of the book is an ethereal portrait of the designer with a sense of the increasing delicacy of his interests as he grows ever more aware of the power of simple gestures, repetition and eclectic juxtaposition.

And the sun? It arrived on the penultimate day of the vacation, and I hear it's still sunny off the coast of Maine right now….